Skipping these muscles will do more than make you look lopsided. It will throw your body out of alignment, up your risk of injury, and limit your exercise performance, calorie burn, and results.
“The most common area women tend to ignore is their chest, or as we call it in strength conditioning, the pectoralis major,” says corrective exercise specialist, Tara Romeo, CSCS, assistant sports performance director of Professional Physical Therapy’s Professional Athletic Performance Center. “When it comes to the bench press, women often envision male body builders with very large chests, or they think it will directly cause them to have flatter breasts. This is false! Women don’t produce enough testosterone to bulk up, and most often genetics determine breast size.” And while working your pectoralis major can help promote a great physique (e.g., perk up what you’ve got), it’s critical to everything from correct posture and running performance to being able to load trucks on moving day like a boss.
Work It: Romeo recommends the dumbbell bench press. And remember: You should be using enough weight that you can just barely eke out your last rep with proper form.
This little lower-back muscle plays a big role in keeping your spine straight and your lower back pain-free, Romeo says. Plus, “you can’t perform exercises like squats and planks at full capacity unless you have good lower-back strength,” says Brett Hoebel, creator of the 20 Minute Body and celebrity trainer on The Biggest Loser season 11. “And if you aren’t hitting these exercises hard, you aren’t going to get the results you want from them.”
Work It: Master the bird dog. If you’re up for a real challenge, perform the exercise while only raising your hand and opposite knee a centimeter of the ground. Without your arm and leg out to help balance you, the erector spinae will have to work even harder, Hoebel says. You can also try the waiter’s bow. Rest your hands on the small of your back and bend forward at the waist like a waiter, until your back is parallel to the ground. You should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings. Then stand back up straight.
If your hip flexors start aching during an ab workout (show of hands?) your transverse abdominis is probably weak, Romeo says. It’s the deepest of your abdominal muscles and wraps around your spine for core strength and stability—which is vital to everything from completing the perfect lunge to pulling a gallon of milk out of your refrigerator. If the muscle is undertrained or weak, surrounding muscles can get overworked and you could wind up injuring yourself picking up that gallon of milk. How embarrassing.
Work It: Try a plank (shown here), or the pelvic tilt exercise: Lie on the floor faceup with your knees bent. Squeeze your core and bend your pelvis just slightly up so that your back is flat on the floor. Hold for 10 seconds.
Triceps Brachii (Long Head)
The triceps are separated into three bundles: the medial head, the lateral head, and the long head, the last of which runs under your armpit to hook into your shoulder and is often neglected, Hoebel says.
Work It: Try the straight-arm triceps kickback, he says. Get in a split stance and hold a dumbbell in one hand, letting it dangle by your side. Place your other hand on your front thigh for support. With your weighted arms straight but not locked and your palm facing your body, raise your arm until your hand is just behind your torso. Pause, then lower back down. Keeping your elbows straight and moving your arm at your shoulder will help you work the triceps where they extend under your pit rather than near your elbow, he says.
“Many women avoid training their hamstrings because they don’t want to grow their thighs,” Hoebel says. But the hamstrings muscles are huge, meaning they have a huge effect on your health and performance. They cross both the knee and hip joint, so any weakness can contribute to knee injuries, he says. Plus, since the hamstrings are crucial to hip extensions—basically, for your thigh to move behind your butt, like, when running—any weakness in the area can cause your glutes and lower back to help pick up the slack, which can result in overuse injuries and pulled muscles.
Work Them: Focus on straight-leg moves that bring your legs in line with or behind your butt, says Hoebel. For instance, try performing straight-leg donkey kicks or straight-leg bridges, balancing your heels on an exercise ball.
Middle and Lower Trapezius
When most women work their traps, they hit upright rows, shrugs, and other exercises that bring their shoulders closer to their ears. That’s only one role of the trapezius muscles, which are broken up into three bands of muscle fibers: upper, middle, and lower. These traditional trap exercises all focus on your upper traps, Hoebel says. Your middle and lower ones actually pull your shoulder blades down and back to your vertebrae for support and posture, and not strengthening them can make your long days bent over a computer screen even more agonizing, he says. Your shoulders will hunch, your neck will compensate, and pain will strike.
Work Them: Perform Y and T lifts. Make sure not to shrug you shoulders, or you’ll accidentally put the focus back on your upper traps, he says.